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Photo: Eduardo Munoz


Not everything about Donald Trump is unpredictable. At least towards the Balkans, his policy so far has be¬en entirely consistent in its general indifference.

Not only is the region irrelevant to his political programme, it’s also of marginal interest to the country he leads. No doubt Trump wants the best for the Balkans. But as the EU’s backyard, he would no doubt argue it’s a place where Europeans must take the lead.

So Florian Bieber  shouldn’t be surprised that American policy toward the Balkans has not changed discernibly since Trump took office.

Instead, it’s business-as-usual on the ground as ambassadors press ahead with their civilising mission - bringing democracy, justice and prosperity to the natives, guiding the region towards the sunlit uplands of the European Union, and clamping down on the nationalists who threaten to return the region to barbarity.

However, it would be wrong to conclude from all this that American policy towards the Balkans is set in stone. On the contrary, an important debate is beginning in the media and the political institutions about the United States’ approach to the region.

Bieber cites dissenting comments by the congressman and Chairman of the House’s Europe, Subcommittee Dana Rohrabacher  and the security analyst John R. Schindler.  He could have added those of the former Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Balkan Task Force, Steven Meyer.  In my own country, the UK, an ex-ambassador to Belgrade, Ivor Roberts , has suggested a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo and another, Charles Crawford , has written about the ‘existential instability’ of the current regional settlement.

These comments have received extensive scrutiny from defenders of the current policy, generating a loud and vigorous online discussion.

The debate is also taking place outside the media glare. Various think tanks have been holding seminars that invite ‘blue skies’ thinking about international policy towards the Balkans. And after setting out my views in Foreign Affairs , I received a plethora of mail from individuals in the US who question its approach.

Florian Bieber dismisses those who advocate a change in policy as pipe-dreamers. But to do so is to misunderstand how foreign policy evolves over time.

As I discovered during my time as a diplomat, there is no document lying in a drawer which permanently defines a government’s policy towards the Balkans or any other region. Instead, policy is the product of a continuous dialogue within a specialist community encompassing officials, special advisers, intelligence analysts, parliamentarians, academics, think tankers, journalists and lobbyists who are actively monitoring and responding to events on the ground.

When the dialogue between these people begins to change, so, eventually, does the policy.

Why, then, is the dialogue now changing?

It is not, I would suggest, because of the ‘void of no discernible Balkan policy’ created by Trump. In the absence of new instructions, the institutions are continuing to run with the policy from the Obama era: nationalist politicians have been sanctioned and sidelined, Montenegro has joined NATO, and so on.  

More precisely, the debate about the Balkans is changing because it’s increasingly clear to many observers that Western policy towards the region is just not working.

In its simplest form, the West has tried to nurture a durable peace in the Balkans by offering it the prospect of integration with NATO and the EU. This, it was hoped, would stabilise the region by guaranteeing its security and prosperity, and allowing divided nations to be reunited in a borderless Europe.

Twenty years on, however, reality falls far short of this ideal. Sometime during the last decade, the basic goal of peace in the region got lost as the EU insisted that weak and economically handicapped states meet an impossible number of political and technical conditions before they could be accepted as members.

Now the politics have turned against enlargement as the EU languishes in a state of apparently permanent crisis created by the intractable contradictions of the euro zone, differences over migration policy, and much more besides. In most EU countries, public opinion is hostile to further enlargement into the Balkans, whose problems can only add to the EU’s own.

This is having perverse effects in the region, where the failure of ‘Europeanisation’ is plunging almost every state into a political crisis of some kind, manifest in institutional paralysis, unrest on the streets, alienation from the political process and growing cynicism towards Western officials who appear to support any local leader who endorses Euro-Atlantic integration, regardless of their fitness for office.

As the promise of EU membership dies, people are instead investing their hopes and dreams in the nation, encouraged by corrupt politicians who are happy to champion nationalism to stay in power. Albanian leaders talk openly about the possibility of unifying their territory if they cannot join the EU. Macedonian protestors demonstrate against enhanced Albanian rights. A Serbian president threatens to go to war in Kosovo. Croatian politicians sing songs to Herzeg Bosna.

Those who know the recent history of the Balkans should not be surprised by any of this. In different circumstances, the region is simply replaying the events of the 1980s when the failure of another ideological project, Titoist-style socialism, encouraged people to take refuge in the nation.

Not everyone, of course, has abandoned the European dream. Significant numbers still believe – in a triumph of hope over experience - that the mechanism of European integration can yet be made to work, just as many in the eighties believed that socialism could be revitalised.

But this belief relies on so much changing – a revival of the EU and eastward enlargement, an unprecedented drive at reform in the region, a decisive re-engagement by the United States and Russia’s willingness to stay out of the Balkans – that the chances of success are severely limited.

Since the existing policy is not working, and because the actual consequences are an uncontrolled rise in nationalism and civil unrest, various commentators are naturally coming forward with new suggestions for upholding stability in the Balkans that get beyond European integration.

For many, that means revisiting the question of borders. This is not because borders are the only problem in the region but because illegitimate borders - and everything that follows from them in terms of power, security, rights and opportunities - are the casus belli for any renewed inter-ethnic violence.

My own view  is that the West should recognise the inevitability of a collapse of the ‘Post-Yugoslav settlement’ and switch its focus from trying to uphold something that cannot be preserved to managing its orderly undoing, with the end goal of establishing legitimate nation states.

This doesn’t mean the United States should charge in and carve up ostensibly peaceful countries in the manner of a nineteenth-century colonialist.

But it does mean that Western policymakers should generally support demands by minorities for greater devolution along national lines; accept closer cross-border cooperation between national kin; and stop promoting the ‘principle’ of multi-ethnicity, the main beneficiaries of which are opportunistic politicians who enrich themselves on the backs of people’s fears of what another national group will do to them.

Of course, nothing sufficiently dramatic has happened in the Balkans since Donald Trump came to power to compel the White House to take up these suggestions.

As I stated at the outset, policy continues to be run by local ambassadors who promote a theoretical process of European integration and leverage this to involve themselves in the nooks and crannies of their host countries’ domestic politics.

When things get out of control, as they did recently in Albania when the opposition boycotted the elections, or in Macedonia, where the president refused to give a mandate to a winning coalition, their superiors from the State Department fly in to bang local heads together.

All this is broadly in the American interest. For as long as these ambassadors and officials can keep a lid on things in the Balkans, they free up the president and the Secretary of State to focus on more urgent international problems such as Syria and North Korea.

However, this approach will be difficult to sustain into the next decade given the breakdown of the process of EU enlargement – the lynchpin of Western policy towards the Balkans – and growing instability in the region.

Whether a Serbian annexation of northern Kosovo or the de facto secession of minority groups like the Macedonian Albanians or Bosnian Serbs, some crisis will eventually become unmanageable by means of illusory enticements and emergency diplomacy.

At that point, unless the White House is willing to risk renewed conflict, it will be forced to re-engage with the Balkans, to think again about what the US is trying to achieve and how best to achieve it.

Will it insist forever on the preservation of arbitrary borders determined by a communist dictator in the face of profound local resistance? Or will it use its immense resources and diplomatic clout to engineer a durable solution that reflects demographic realities on the ground?

For the moment, all this is a matter of abstract debate within foreign policy circles.

But the old assumptions about what the Balkans must and mustn’t be are now being scrutinised and re-examined from first principles, changing the intellectual environment in which policy is formulated.

Events will eventually force senior American policymakers to devise a new approach that catches up with political reality. While that may not be for some years, a debate about how to prevent a relapse into violence is already under way. As this debate progresses, it will lay the groundwork for an eventual check with reality to happen.


This article first appeared in Balkan Insight on 8th June 2017

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